The Top Ten Real-Life Characters from the Mercia Blakewood Novels: 1. John Winthrop, Jr

We reach the end of our run-through of the real-life characters in Mercia’s adventures with the top spot going to John Winthrop, Jr, early Puritan pioneer and long-time Governor of Connecticut, a man of learning, administration and science, an enlightened statesman it was easy to respect.

1: John Winthrop, Jr (1606 – 1676)

‘I am proud to help the people with the discoveries I have found.’”

John Winthrop, Jr, Puritan, Chapter Three

John Winthrop, Jr was a man of immensely varied talents, earning accolade in an astonishing breadth of disciplines. Politics and medicine; astronomy and mining; alchemy and exploration: there was little that escaped his inquisitive eye. A pioneer and visionary, he deployed his broad intellect to mould the founding chapters of European settlement in America. In the novels he is a fount of reassurance for Mercia, an accomplished leader from whom she can seek wisdom as the world around her falls apart.

John was born at the start of the seventeenth century in Suffolk in the east of England, eldest son of the similarly named and similarly important John. As a teenager, John Jr attended Dublin’s Trinity College before he went on to study law, but by 1630 the political climate in England was becoming ever more unfavourable to Puritan families like the Winthrops. His father, one of the most senior figures in Puritan circles, decided the family should emigrate to the newly founded colony of Massachusetts Bay in America; indeed he was appointed its Governor before he even set sail, at the head of a substantial fleet of ships. John, Jr followed a year later, soon after he had married his cousin Mary.

A New World

On his arrival, Winthrop took inspiration from his father and threw himself into the governance of the New World, becoming an assistant in the colony and founding the town of Agawam (Ipswich). But as was the case with many of his compatriots in this harsh and unfamiliar landscape, it was not long before personal tragedy brought a jolt of unfeeling realism to his fervour. In 1634, both his wife and their infant daughter died, and Winthrop subsequently returned to England for a time. But it was during this stay that he met Elizabeth Reade (see number 10 in this series), the pair quickly forging a strong bond that led to their marriage. Winthrop also received a commission from members of the English nobility to found a new colony on their behalf, and in 1635, with Elizabeth at his side, he returned to America.

Relief from the Founders’ Memorial in Boston, showing Winthrop’s father being greeted on his arrival

Although the colony he founded at Saybrook did not ultimately prosper, Winthrop’s rekindled enthusiasm continued unabated, driven by his lifelong passion for learning and discovery. Awarded land at Fisher’s Island off the Connecticut coast, he founded the settlement of Nameaug (New London) on the mainland opposite, which he used as a base for establishing nearby mines and metalworks. When New London was deemed to be part of the emerging Connecticut colony, Winthrop resigned from his positions in Massachusetts Bay, and he became an assistant in Connecticut. Here his abilities as a mineralogist and alchemist thrived, much to the benefit of his fellow colonists.

Alchemist and Governor

To us today, alchemy sounds like a fanciful pursuit undertaken by charlatans or fools, but to John and his seventeenth century contemporaries it was a serious endeavour that was entirely compatible with his devout religious beliefs. Alchemists of repute (charlatans did of course exist) strove to divine the philosopher’s stone that would turn base metals to gold, as well as discover the alkahest, the legendary panacea for all sickness. But outside these holy grails, other, less lofty goals brought tangible results.

In his laboratory, John set himself to experimenting with various minerals and elements, writing his findings and correspondence in secret code to protect his work. And his experiments bore fruit, particularly in the field of medicine. He was renowned throughout New England as its pre-eminent doctor, concocting medicines from minerals like antimony and alum, besides deploying a variety of more familiar herbal remedies. Antimony was a poison in its natural state, but once competent alchemists like Winthrop had refined it, the mineral transformed into a restorative and often life-saving product, a wonder to those who benefitted from Winthrop’s skill. He was supported in his endeavours by a team of women who administered his medicines around the land, as exemplified by Clemency Carter in Puritan.

The monas hieroglyphica, an alchemical symbol used by Winthrop in his writings

So much was Winthrop’s medical skill in demand that the people of New Haven colony west along the coast persuaded him to live with them for a time, but his tenure there was brief. Already the most prominent man in Connecticut society, in 1657 John was tempted back and made Governor, necessitating a move to the capital Hartford (still the capital today). The governorship ran for a one-year term, but after Winthrop’s year was up his fellows amended this restriction, and from 1659 he was to remain Governor for the rest of his life, despite trying to stand down from the role more than once.

By Royal Appointment

In 1660, New England was thrown into turmoil with the Restoration of Charles II, no friend of the Puritans who had sided with his father’s enemies in the civil war. Connecticut was especially imperilled, as the colony lacked any formal status in English law. Rather than wait to see what happened, John braved the ocean crossing to England himself to negotiate with the new administration, which he did so successfully that not only did Connecticut gain full recognition, it also subsumed the New Haven colony into its borders and was even granted all the land west to the Pacific itself, at the time an unknown distance, although this provision was swiftly ignored.

During this visit, Winthrop took the opportunity to meet with fellow scientists and alchemists, such as Mercia’s father Sir Rowland Goodridge in my fiction. Beyond medicine, he was a multi-disciplined scientist, a geographer and a geologist, and had always maintained regular links with the greatest thinkers across the ocean. In 1662 his efforts were recognised at the highest levels when on New Year’s Day he was admitted as the first colonial representative to the newly formed Royal Society, Charles II’s initiative for the study of science that still operates today.

Shrewd Diplomat

Information panel in Hartford, CT, where Winthrop lived as Governor

Returning in triumph to New England (not all the residents of New Haven agreed), Winthrop continued with his scientific pursuits: in 1664 he claimed to have discovered a fifth moon of Jupiter, over two centuries before it was officially found, although the discovery was unverified and unlikely. But politics again reared its head, and it is at this point that Winthrop’s story intersects with Mercia’s, when he played a role in helping the fleet she sails with in Birthright seize New Amsterdam from the Dutch, negotiating with Dutch Governor Stuyvesant (see number five in this series) on behalf of fleet commander Richard Nicolls (see number nine). Following the subsequent creation of royalist New York, Winthrop embarked on a long-term strategy mixing displays of loyalty to the Crown with subtle disobedience, cultivating a mutually respectful relationship with Nicolls – now Governor of New York – while using his well-connected contacts in the Royal Society to stay ahead of the Crown’s designs on the New World and so keep his colony intact.

In 1675, matters almost came to a head when a royal fleet arrived in the Connecticut river demanding he cede them the former lands of New Haven. That threat came to naught however when war elsewhere intervened. Throughout his time in office, Winthrop had sought to forge close relationships with the Native American population, many of whom trusted him as a powwow, or healer, where they found it hard to trust anyone else. But too many around Winthrop did not share his views, and by now the Native Americans had had enough. Full-blown conflict broke out, but sadly Winthrop’s careful diplomacy was unable to help. It was during this conflict, in 1676 at the age of seventy, that Winthrop died.

He left behind nine children, as well as his many discoveries and a vast array of coded notes. Mourners from across New England lamented his passing, while his burial took place in the Winthrop plot in Boston, where he had first come to the New World four and a half decades before. Leader, scientist, physician and diplomat: John Winthrop, Jr was among the finest minds of his day, and a fitting end to our look at the real-life characters in Mercia’s tales as a man whose achievements she so ardently admired.

Winthrop family memorial in King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston. John Winthrop, Jr is second from top, beneath his father. Fitz-John and Waitstill below were two of his sons.

Photographs by David Hingley / Matthew Jackson

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